At the Davis, Pictorialist beauty from Clarence H. White
WELLESLEY — All artists have a world. Along with the external one they share with the rest of us, there’s the internal one their work defines. So the title of “Clarence H. White and His World” might seem pro forma. It’s not. The show, whose subtitle is “The Art and Craft of Photography, 1895-1925,” runs through June 3 at Wellesley College’s Davis Museum.
The title isn’t pro forma because White (1871-1925) belonged to multiple worlds, some interlocking, others seemingly apart. The great strength of the Davis show, which was organized by the Princeton University Art Museum, is the attention given to each.
The show includes nearly 150 items. Along with photographs by White, there are others from such friends and fellow members of the Photo-Secession movement as Alfred Stieglitz, F. Holland Day, Gertrude Käsebier, and Alvin Langdon Coburn and such students of White as Paul Outerbridge, Laura Gilpin, and Anton Bruehl. White was the most important photography teacher of the early 20th century. Other students included Dorothea Lange, Karl Struss, Ralph Steiner, and Margaret Bourke-White. It’s a tribute to White as educator that the work of most of them looks so little like his.
The show also offers paintings, books, vintage magazines, and ephemera: a cultural world. Most of the ephemera relate to White’s teaching (one is a typescript of a class assignment from 1923), though the most notable postdates White’s death. It’s a rather frosty letter of condolence from Stieglitz to White’s widow. The two men had had a falling out in 1912.
White’s initial world was that of small-town Ohio. An accountant for a wholesale grocer, he bought his first camera in 1894. Within four years, he had met Stieglitz. Artistic evolutions don’t come more rapid than that. In 1904, he took up photography full time. Two years later he moved to New York.
Fueled by ambition, White was like a Dreiser character — a Clyde Griffiths or male Sister Carrie — leaving the heartland for the metropolis. There was a crucial difference. What drove White was the pursuit of art, not status or wealth.
It was art with a capital A. White belonged to the school of photography known as Pictorialism. Pictorialists practiced art for art’s sake with a camera. One of the show’s pleasures is seeing — literally, seeing — how tight-knit the Pictorialists were, with various portraits taken by one another of White, Stieglitz, Day, Coburn, Käsebier, and Edward Steichen. The show includes a White picture of Steichen and his bride on their honeymoon. Pictorialism was a movement, and the movement sought to demonstrate that photography had a place among the fine arts. This made Pictorialists very radical. Yet the means they chose could hardly have been less advanced.
Pictorialists consciously imitated the look of etching and drawing and often turned to antique subject matter. Pictorialists were as fond of mythology and pastoralism as Poussin had been. The result was images of surpassing beauty and frequent vapidity. The true wonder of the medium — that a photograph captures a specific moment in a specific place as no painting ever can — was essentially discarded. Indeterminacy, timelessness, and evocation were the goal, rather than particularity, contemporaneity, and documentation.
White’s images are never less than appealing, and at their best they show a fruitful tension between pursuing Pictorialist precept and honoring the nature of the medium. “Telegraph Poles,” from 1900, joins soft focus to what is clearly a contemporary setting, and in a way that benefits both. “Girl With Mirror” bows to Vermeer. It would seem closer in spirit to 1612 than 1912, the year White took it. Yet note the ravishing intersection of light and geometry that the open window offers and the play of face and reflection. Optics fascinated the Dutch, and White uses that fascination in a way that’s very modern.
His own fascination with optics is evident in “Drops of Rain,” from 1902. For once, the Pictorialist predilection for texture seems almost avant-garde. The passage of light through multiple media — water, air, glass, screen — is so pleasing, and involved, it’s no wonder the little boy holding the glass ball has a rapt look. He’s White’s son. In a nice fillip, the juxtaposition of boy and round transparent sphere recalls Chardin’s “Soap Bubbles.”
White died while leading a group of students on a Mexican tour. The show finishes with several photographs he took on the trip. Is it too much to read into them a possible departure? It was Mexico in the mid-’20s that saw the transformation of Edward Weston, 15 years younger than White, from junior Pictorialist to master of clarity, crispness, and detail.
After leaving the Davis, “Clarence H. White and His World” travels to the Portland Museum of Art. It runs there June 22-Sept. 16.
CLARENCE H. WHITE AND HIS WORLD: The Art and Craft of Photography, 1895-1925
At Davis Museum, Wellesley College, 106 Central St., Wellesley, through June 3. 781-283-2051, www.wellesley.edu/davismuseum